[Our thanks to Alice Hoffman for sharing this excerpt from her recent book, Survival Lessons. Based on her own experience as a cancer survivor, this is a deeply personal and profound collection of essays on dealing with trauma and loss. Check back tomorrow for another excerpt.]
Choose Your Friends
When you have a dinner party only invite people you want to talk to. Invite those you’ve always wanted to know.
If I could, I would invite the Brontës and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choices for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson, even though it is said that at some point she only spoke to callers through her bedroom door. That makes me love her all the more because I often feel exactly the same and want to hide away. She took to covering the windows in her bedroom, so she would feel safe, but she also went into the woods and collected hundreds of specimens of wildflowers.
Since it is impossible to invite great, dead writers, invite alive young people. Girls with pink hair who have big dreams. Young men who plan to change the world. children who get into trouble at school because they have too much energy and too many ideas. People in the middle of their lives are so busy working, buying things, and trying to pay their mortgages that they often don’t have time to spend dreaming out loud. Your friends’ children may now seem more interesting than their parents. It may come as a complete surprise when they are the ones who take time to visit, who view you without judgment even though you have lost your hair and your eyebrows. They ask questions other people are too polite to bring up: Did you love her? Does it hurt? Are you afraid of what happens next?
I especially appreciated the fearlessness of teen readers and writers when I was undergoing treatment. One beautiful girl said to me, I am the darkest person you’ve ever met, but her poems were graceful and eloquent, and she hugged me when I left. Another told me that my book Green Angel--about a girl who loses everything and has to reclaim her life through writing her story--had gotten her through months in a hospital bed and several surgeries. I realized these teens were just starting out and I might be ending, but I felt a wild sort of joy to see how alike we were despite the difference in our ages. The fact that they loved books assured me that even if I wasn’t able to be a part of it, the future would be in good hands.
I also found myself drawn to older people. I asked them, How did it feel to see yourself change on the outside and look entirely different? I began to talk to neighbors in their eighties and nineties, people who had previously been nothing more than nodding acquaintances. I discovered what interesting lives they’d led and how much they had to say. Once I slowed down and took the time to ask questions, I realized they had a thousand and one stories.
I threw a party for my mother’s birthday, inviting both her friends and mine. We had tea in an old New England inn. It was the last birthday my mother celebrated. We didn’t know that, but we had an idea that might be true. We didn’t count calories or glasses of wine. One of the younger women asked if there was anything the older women wished they’d done when they were younger and had more energy and time. The older women all agreed upon the answer: They wished they had traveled the world. But more importantly, they wished they’d fallen in love more often. Don’t hold back! they told us. Live right now!
Make time for old friends. Get a group of your favorite people together and rent a room at a hotel. Order room service, watch movies, dance until the management starts to get complaints from other guests. Go to a spa together or make pizza from scratch. Tell someone how much he means to you. Don’t hold back! Throw your arms around somebody right now.
The truth is, some of your closest friends may disappear during your most difficult times. These people have their own history and traumas; they may not be able to deal with yours. They may belong to the before.
I still mourn the loss of certain people, friends who didn’t call after my diagnosis, who were too afraid to come to the hospital or visit me on my worst days. I was hurt. I felt abandoned. Looking back on it, I wish I had let them go more easily. If people aren’t there for you now, when you really need them, they never will be, and it’s time to move on. You’ll be amazed by how many new friends you have in the after. They’ll be the ones who aren’t afraid of sorrow, who know we can’t avoid it. The best we can do is face it together.
> See all of Alice Hoffman's books